As I mentioned in my match preview – which irritated Wolves fans in a way that Derby County utterly failed to do on the pitch – Wolves are on a different level to everyone else on the Championship. In next to no time, Fosun’s money and more importantly their tight connection to Jorge Mendes has utterly transformed the club from pottering underachiever to sophisticated, Premier League-ready European middleweight. It’s hard to see any reason why they will struggle in the Premier League next season.
That however is no excuse for Derby County not to give them a game. In a different way, this was just as humiliating a defeat as the one against Sunderland. While that loss was a case of gross incompetence, this was one of sheer inferiority – not just in technique, but, less forgivably, in attitude.
Derby looked beaten as soon as Chris Baird’s inexplicable malfunction led to that stupid early goal. OK, it was important not to let the floodgates open after that howler, but you can’t just sit off for the rest of the match. They looked so timid in possession, so scared to give the ball away that they ended up playing “safe” little passes – sideways and backwards – only to run into the trap of Wolves’ alert, well-organised press every time they tried to force a pass to Vydra centrally. For all that Rowett has spoken about making us more direct, Derby’s pass success rate in this game was 86 per cent – miles higher than usual since Rowett took over – because they rarely tried anything high-risk. I’ve always preferred teams who can control the game through short passing, but in this game, I finally felt like the “it’s what you do with it” brigade had a point after all and even found myself yearning for the fabled “Plan B” – Cameron Jerome, channel balls. Anything to put Wolves under any sort of pressure. Tom Huddlestone was irrelevant as a playmaker, the front players were starved of meaningful service and Derby created absolutely nothing.
They mustered six shots, but none of them were from inside the box – the only time this season that has happened so far (though they managed only one in the box at Preston). The gulf in quality on view was something we had to brace ourselves for, but it was still sobering to view. There was a feeling throughout that this was a game that was happening to Derby, or more accurately, being inflicted on them.
Huddlestone’s immobility was shown up horribly as Wolves simply passed the ball the midfield around at will. Rúben Neves sprayed the ball to his wing backs with heavenly accuracy – the kind of ball Huddlestone is capable of, given the time – because he was given the time to do it.
Wisdom received the ball, looked forward, saw an immaculately organised orange wall, turned round and apologetically gave it square. Baird had either been instructed not to enter Wolves’ final third, or refused to do so. Vydra was tightly marked and kicked to the ground when necessary. Lawrence flickered and fizzled, Weimann – who Paul Lambert would have signed for Wolves last season, remember – ran around a lot. Wolves shut them out with contemptuous ease.
Rowett could see all of this unfolding in front of him, but didn’t make any changes until 70 minutes. After that, it wasn’t until a clearly shattered team starting falling over on the pitch that he bothered to make any further substitutions. David Nugent was isolated and ineffectual against the Wolves back three, but not relieved of his duties until 82 minutes had elapsed. Jamie Hanson arrived for a pointless late cameo – with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps should have started this match and been told to man-mark Neves. It might not have worked, but giving a Portugal international and former captain of FC Porto the freedom of Molineux was never going to end well either.
After Neves’ goal, Rowett effectively decided that it wasn’t worth chasing the game and potentially taking a hiding, instead settling for 0-2. Luckily enough, Wolves sensed how milky their opponents were and didn’t exert themselves trying to hand us the whupping we deserved, as the three points were effectively in the bag anyway.
Enough said. As galling as it to lose in such a passive manner, it was only ever three points on offer. The best that could’ve happened was to stay fifth with a slightly better goal difference, the worst was a battering and stay fifth with a badly damaged goal difference (and further damage to morale among the fans). It’s perfectly possible that GD could separate sixth from seventh this year and at present, Derby’s +20 is clearly better than the other contenders.
So to that extent, no disaster. What Rowett now has to do is redeem the awful display at Wolves by putting out a side which beats Burton Albion.
On paper, it’s the dream tie – Nigel’s Brewers are as good as down and haven’t won at home since Christ was a lad – but that looked the case when Sunderland came to town, as well.
Derby have managed just 11 shots from within the box in the past four games, which averages out at less than one every half-hour. You might get away with that for a while – Lawrence’s fine strike from distance glossed the Bolton win and his free kick got us the win at Preston – but over the longer term, such a lack of creativity could wreck a season. So, objective #1 has to be – be much more productive going forward at the Pirelli, against the worst defence in the division.
Burton have a distinctly 2012 DCFC vibe at the back and you would like to think – given the amount of money at Pride Park spent since then – that Derby would have progressed enough to comfortably see off their (very) old boys, if they’re selected.
And they’re just as bad up-front. Darren Bent’s loan move (one goal so far) has been as successful as you’d have expected. 35-year old Lloyd Dyer has contributed seven goals from wide – a better return than Tom Lawrence or Andreas Weimann – but he is out with a hamstring injury and no other Brewer has scored more than three league goals.
Worst attack, worst defence, bottom of the league. Top scorer (with seven) out injured.
If Derby can’t put these away, then finishing in the play-offs starts to look really difficult. Three points would move the Rams onto 71 – still not enough, but enough to give some margin for error in the three extremely tough matches which follow. Curiously, the four teams immediately below Derby play each other on Saturday, so the good news is, they can’t all win and a victory for the Rams would pull them further ahead of at least two of their rivals.
The nightmare outcome is a Nigel Clough-inspired up-yours to his old club and while there are no logical reasons to predict it happening, it did happen to Nigel Pearson last season (last season – Jesus, that feels like a long time ago). You’d like to think that a Gary Rowett-managed side would be much better schooled on what to expect at Burton. And you’d like to think that they would be professional enough to take advantage of such weak opposition. They did it against Bolton, after all.
But pressure can do funny things to people and in a way, there’s no pressure on Burton here, because they’re as good as down anyway. Besides, failing to beat the worst team in the league at a time when their only goalscorer is injured would be exactly the kind of ‘Peak Derby’ outcome that Rowett described as ‘bollocks’ not so long ago.
Supporting Derby feels tough at the moment, because the results have been poor for a while now, the team have struggled for form and the football has generally been less than inspiring. It’s just the way it has unfolded – again – to be seemingly in contention for automatic promotion at the turn of the year, only to fade away so sharply and familiarly. It has been painful. They don’t look like a particularly good side, which is tough to take in itself when Wolves and Fulham look so fluent and some folk were claiming it was all that football which was the problem.
And that’s before you get into the off-the-field issues – but that is an entirely different story, for another time.
But take a step back – if offered it at the start of the season, would you have taken fifth in the league and 22 points clear of Forest in mid-April? Personally, I’d have snapped hands off for that. Hopefully the team will give us all a huge morale boost tomorrow at Burton and then we can look forward to four more absolutely massive games in the weeks to come.